Jean Gebser (August 20, 1905 May 14, 1973) was a philosopher who described the evolution of human consciousness, a linguist, and a poet.
Born Hans Gebser in Posen in Imperial Germany (now Poland), he left Germany in 1929, living for a time in Italy and then in France. He then moved to Spain, mastered the Spanish language in a few months and entered the Spanish Civil Service where he rose to become a senior official in the Spanish Ministry of Education. He was also a published poet. When the Spanish Civil War began, he moved to Paris. He lived in Paris for a while but saw the unavoidability of German invasion. He fled to Switzerland in 1939, escaping only hours before the frontier was closed. He spent the rest of his life near Bern, where he did most of his writing.
Late in life, Gebser travelled widely in India, the Far East, and the Americas, and wrote half a dozen more books. Gebser was as much a man of science and the arts as he was a mystic. In fact it would be a serious mistake to believe that he favored mystifying dogma over transparent explanations. He was no proponent of fascist or other ideologies using various cultic symbols and myths for self-justification.
He died on May 14, 1973 "with a soft and knowing smile." Gebser had written in Die Schlafenden Jahre, "When we are born we cry and weep, when we die we should smile." Algis Mickunas, professor emeritus of philosophy at Ohio University was given a tape of Gebser's last death-bed utterances by Gebser's widow and this tape has been digitally enhanced by the media laboratory at the University of Oklahoma (his weakened state and his asthma made him difficult to understand). This and other personal letters and publications are held at the Gebser Archives at the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections, Norman, Oklahoma, Bizzel Libraries.
His major thesis was that the stress and chaos in Europe from 1914 to 1945 were the symptoms of a structure of consciousness that was at the end of its effectiveness, and which heralded the birth of a new form of consciousness. The first evidence he witnessed was in the novel use of language and literature. He modified this position in 1943 so as to include the changes which were occurring in the arts and sciences at that time.
His thesis of the failure of one structure of consciousness alongside the emergence of a new one led him to inquire as to whether such had not occurred before. His work, Ursprung und Gegenwart is the result of that inquiry. It was published in various editions from 1949 to 1953, and translated into English as The Ever-Present Origin. Working from the historical evidence of almost every major field, (e.g., poetry, music, visual arts, architecture, philosophy, religion, physics and the other natural sciences, etc.) Gebser saw traces of the emergence (which he called "efficiency") and collapse ("deficiency") of various structures of consciousness throughout history.
Gebser's theory is that human consciousness is in transition, and that these transitions are "mutations" and not continuous. These jumps or transformations involve structural changes in both mind and body. There are a number of these levels:
The archaic structure
The structures of consciousness
Gebser notes that the various structures of consciousness
are revealed by their relationship to space and time. For example, the
mythical structure embodies time as cyclical/rhythmic and space as enclosed.
Whereas the mental structure lives time as linear, directed or "progressive"
and space becomes the box-like homogeneous space of geometry a
vacuum. But just as each consciousness structure erupts it also eventually
becomes deficient. The deficient form of the mental structure Gebser called
the 'rational' structure. Of particular significance is his realization
that previous consciousness structures continue to operate. The rational
structure of awareness seeks to deny the other structures with its claim
that humans are exclusively rational.
The rational structure is known for its extremes as evidenced in various "nothing but..." statements. Extreme materialism claims that "everything is nothing but matter atoms". Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is replaced with instrumental reason, the ability "to make". Contemplationlooking inwardis devalued in relation to what one "can do". "Wise men" fall out of favor and are replaced by the "man of action." Successes in technologically re-shaping matter offer solutions to some problems but also give rise to problems of their own making. Mechanized slaughter of two world wars and the new atomic weapons exemplified and symbolized the expression of the ontology of the rational/mental structure. Living becomes hard to bear in such a consciousness structure.
Some saw the cause of this despair as a lack of values
or ethics. Gebser saw that it is the very consciousness structure itself
which has played out to its inherent end. He saw that its metaphysical
presumptions necessarily led to this ethical dead end. A "value-free"
ontology like materialism leads of necessity to living "without value".
Any attempt to remedy the situation by a return to "values"
would ultimately fail. But it was through this very quagmire of "the
decline of the West" that Gebser saw the emergence of a new structure
of consciousness which he termed the integral.
The integral consciousness structure was made evident by a new relationship to space and time. In the second part of his work, Gebser set out to document the evidence that he saw throughout various human endeavors. Of note here were the incorporation of time in physics, the attempts to "paint" time in the visual arts and the like. Gebser noticed that the integral structure of consciousness was largely witnessed as the irruption of time into the "fixed-reality" of the mental structure. For Gebser, dualistically opposed and "static" categories of Being gave way to transparency.
Transparency points to how it is that the one is "given-through" and always "along-with" the other. For centuries, time was viewed as having distinct categories of past, present and future. These categories were said to be wholly distinct one from the other. Of course, this created all kinds of difficulties regarding how beings moved from one category to the other from present to past, for example. What integral awareness notices is that though we may utilize categorical thinking for various purposes, we also have the realization that time is an indivisible whole. That various beings in the present are crystallized from the past, and which also extend into the future. In fact, without already having an integral awareness, one could have no notion of time as "past" or "present", etc. Without the awareness of the whole, one would be stuck in a kind of "not-knowing" of an always only "now" not connected to any sense of past or future. Even the mental awareness which divides this whole into distinct categories could not have become aware of those categories without an awareness which was already integral.
Awareness is already integral. Gebser introduced the notion of presentiation which means to make something present through transparency. An aspect of integral awareness is the presentiation, or "making present", of the various structures of awareness. Rather than allowing only one (rational) structure to be valid, all structures are recognized, presented, one through the other. This awareness of and acceptance of the various structures enables one to live through the various structures rather than to be subjected to them ("lived by" them in German).
To realize the various structures within one's language
and habits, and even within one's own life and self is a difficult task.
But Gebser says that it is a task that we cannot choose to ignore without
losing ourselves. This means that our so-called "objective thinking"
is not without consequences, is not innocent. That to live "objectively"
means to give life to the horrors of nihilism combined with the know how
of highly "efficient" weapons. It means that "objectivity"
gets applied to "engineering humanity" whether it is in the
behavioral sciences or the physical sciences. He asks of us whether or
not we have as of yet had our fill of those horrors. Are we willing to
settle into the comfort of our daily life or to take on the process of
change? He offers as a guiding note that just as there is also a time
to act, there is also the much neglected time of contemplation. In a world
where know-how is overvalued, simple knowing must also be nurtured in
contemplation. Furthermore, he knew that thought was never simply a mental
exercise restricted to one's writing. He calls upon us to realize that
we are what we think.
Gebser traces the evidence for the transformations of
the structure of consciousness as they are concretized in historical artifacts.
He sought to avoid calling this process "evolutionary", since
any such notion was illusory when applied to the "unfolding of consciousness."
Biological evolution, as Gebser noted at length, was an enclosing process,
that particularized a species to a limited environment. The unfolding
of awareness is by contrast an opening-up. Any attempt to give a direction
or goal to the unfolding of awareness is illusory in that it is based
upon a limited notion of time, the mental, which is linear and hence implies
"progress." To be sure, Gebser was fully aware that any notion
of "human progress" was already played out. He notes that "to
progress" is to move toward but is also a moving away from, and he
knew that the question as to the fate of humanity is still open, that
for it to become closed would be the ultimate tragedy, but that such a
closure remains a possibility. Our fate is not assured by any notion of
"an evolution toward" any kind of ideal way of being.
His work has formed the basis of a number of other important studies, in particular Ken Wilber's Up from Eden, Rudolf Bahro's Logik der Rettung (translated into English as Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster), Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle's Living in the New consciousness, Daniel Kealey's Revisioning Environmental Ethics, Georg Feuerstein's Wholeness or Transcendence, William Irwin Thompson's Coming into Being, and Eric Mark Kramer's Modern/Postmodern: Off the Beaten Path of Antimodernism.
Gebser's integral philosophy is evaluated and applied
to New Age thinking about a nascent shift in consciousness in the 2006
book 2012, The Return of Quetzalcoatl by Daniel Pinchbeck. In A Secret
History of Consciousness (2003) cultural historian Gary Lachman links
Gebser's work to that of other alternative philosophers of consciousness,
such as Owen Barfield, Rudolf Steiner, Colin Wilson, and Jurij Moskvitin.
The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser, authorized translation
by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985,
Rilke und Spanien, 19361939
Jean Gebser (1905 - 1973). by Elmar Schübl (Mar
Adolf Portmann, Jean Gebser, Johann Jakob Bachofen:
Drei Kulturforscher, drei Bilder vom Menschen (Texte, Thesen ; 67) by
Joachim Illies (1975)